Music is a language that anyone can learn regardless of age, as music teacher Dale Kettering knows very well.
Kettering graduated from college in 1986 with degrees in vocal music education and piano performance. Her music teaching career took off immediately after that, starting with briefly teaching in public schools before getting specific training for the Suzuki method in 1987.
She taught at the American Suzuki Institute at the University of Wisconsin for 5 years, then did some traveling around before ending up in Minneapolis for 11 years.
She moved to Buena Vista with her husband, Greg, in 2008 and has continued teaching the Suzuki method since then.
Created by the Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki, the Suzuki method is an international music curriculum based on the principles of language acquisition. This allows even young children to learn to play an instrument before learning how to read.
“I love teaching this way,” Kettering says. “It’s free. The kids learn the instrument the same way we learn our language, which is called a Mother Tongue approach. They’re exposed to a language.
Even a little 2-year-old is singing ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’
“He doesn’t know how to read music, but he can sing it now … The kids have a good music vocabulary before they begin to read. It’s been really successful for me,” she said. “It’s gratifying for myself as a teacher, and the kids, seeing how they try and excel in that.”
Currently, she has four adult students and 12 young, school-aged students. Her youngest student is a 2-year-old, and her oldest is a grandmother. She works in trimesters, usually consisting of spring, fall and winter. Summer is more of an “if they can basis” assuming any of the students are available for lessons.
Starting early with the Suzuki method is especially beneficial because children are not yet preoccupied by school. When kids have been learning music with someone since the age of 2 or 4, “it’s something they don’t really remember never doing. They always remember doing it, so it’s not something they choose to remove from their life,” Kettering says.
She’s sure that by next year, the 2-year-old she’s teaching will be playing the piano. “We’re already working with the piano, with him finding things and stuff like that. And it’s a joyful environment. He doesn’t really have official practice to do.”
Specifically, Kettering teaches piano. Though she has a degree in vocal music, she doesn’t consider herself an expert in teaching the subject.
“I work with my kids in singing because it’s important that they find their voice. But I don’t really teach voice lessons,” she says.
For younger students, parents typically sit in on the lessons, but even as the children get older and come to lessons alone, Kettering provides some coaching for parents to help their kids.
“It’s like a triangle with parent, child and teacher. That helps with success. The parents are in the loop about everything, and they’re certainly invited to come in anytime, but I like to have the kids be more independent,” Kettering explains.
Though some students may feel it’s time to let go of the lessons, more often than not just sitting down and playing something helps them feel better.
After entering sixth grade, one of her students considered quitting after 5 years of lessons. Kettering talked to her and assured her they’d work it out. With Kettering’s support, that student continues lessons and is even in her school band.
“A lot of teachers will have a three-strikes-you’re-out kind of thing. You come to three lessons and you’re unprepared, and they’ll kick you out. I just don’t believe in that,” Kettering says. “My teacher trainer said that if you have the attitude that you can’t get through to them, why do you think somebody else could by letting them go?”
A toddler she teaches typically doesn’t participate in class, but he observes everything that takes place with a smile on his face. The toddler’s mother later sent Kettering a video of him singing all the of the songs he heard during class.
“It made me realize he’s hearing every single thing that’s going on in class,” Kettering said.
Kettering had taught another girl who was treated for cancer around 1996. “I’d seen her survive that. Now she’s married and then she just had a baby, and she’s a musician and a choral composer. She’s still in contact with me. She values the time that we had.”
Kettering likes seeing how the children she has taught take wing in their adult lives, and how their own children take music lessons now.
“You plant that seed in one person and it just continues on,” she says.
Before settling in Buena Vista, Kettering met many students on the road, some she still teaches via FaceTime, including a 15-year-old boy who only has about 10 percent of his sight.
“He truly wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing now if he hadn’t found the Suzuki approach. He has to hold something right up to his face, and it has to be really big… But he’s got such a fantastic ear that all I have to do is play things for him and he remembers it,” she says.
That he can listen to a song and play it has been much more efficient than having him read the song in braille and then translate it onto the piano. The boy said he doesn’t plan to major in music, but he is interested in playing in a band.
Kettering currently plays percussion in Alpine Orchestra. “They asked me this last year because they needed some help. That was my first gig as a percussionist, which is fun.,” she says.
Kettering can also play the organ and was the music director at the Lutheran Church in Salida for 9 years before recently retiring.
She also has sung in the past with Collegiate Peaks Chorale, and she has accompanied High Country Fine Arts, “just doing a little bit of everything.”
Since 2016, she has been the administrator for the Walden Chamber Music Society and is stepping down from that this year to help free up her focus on teaching.